Consumers to TV networks: Keep ads, regular programs

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A majority of U.S. consumers say they're fine with TV networks returning to their regularly scheduled programming, commercials and all, according to an exclusive Advertising Age survey.

In a poll conducted by WPP Group's Lightspeed Research, 83% of consumers said it is appropriate for the networks to run prime-time entertainment during the first weeks of the war. The survey of 439 consumers was carried out March 25 and 26, a week after the start of bombing in Baghdad, when the networks had already returned to their regular prime-time schedules.

"People are still looking for distraction. [Fox's] `American Idol' is still popular," said Jonathan Field, cultural strategist at Fieldworks, New York, a brand-research firm.

departure

This consumer mind-set is a departure from consumers' views of advertising on last year's anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. At the time, more than half those polled by Lightspeed felt advertisers should go dark for the whole day. Even more telling was that nearly a third said they would develop a negative view of advertisers who aired TV spots on that day (AA, Aug. 5, 2002).

"Sept. 11 was a watershed. It was like getting hit with mortality, and life stopped. Now it's the opposite. Life goes on [and] advertising is just one more thing," Mr. Field said.

Geography also figures into consumer's reactions this time around, said Jane Strong, president of market-research firm Insight Out, Weston, Conn. Sept. 11 affected civilians in the U.S., while the Iraq war doesn't have the same immediacy, she said. She added that may change as the war drags on, especially if the U.S. takes heavy casualties.

"I wouldn't be surprised if there's a change as people realize this isn't just some football game and we're going to have a tailgate party and watch Saddam get blown up," she said.

`on the attack'

The consumer mind-set is also more aggressive now than in the aftermath of Sept. 11, said Faith Popcorn, founder of Faith Popcorn's BrainReserve, New York, a marketing-consulting firm.

"Back then we were in deeper mourning. Now we're on the attack," Ms. Popcorn said.

By the end of the first week of fighting, most marketers had returned to TV, with some avoiding news programming. (See related story, P. 91) But Lightspeed's survey found consumers supported showing ads on news programming nearly 2 to 1. Sixty-three percent of respondents said it would be appropriate to show ads on network newscasts and 35% opposed the ads. But they were less tolerant of the cable news networks, with only 53% feeling ads are appropriate.

"It's always about the relationship between the person and the media. A CNN viewer who's a dedicated newshound doesn't want to be distracted from it," Mr. Strong said.

Viewers have grown tired of watching war news and want more escapist programming, including commercials, Ms. Popcorn said. They may become more receptive to commercial messages, especially if they're for products that make them feel safe and comfortable, citing as examples "good Americana ... Tide, Tylenol and Campbell's soup."

But advertisers need to be careful to pitch their products in the right programming, and watch the message, since overtly patriotic messages, or the wrong use of humor could backfire, observers said. "At a time like this, media planning becomes important," Mr. Field said.

Ms. Strong recently worked on a campaign for Gillette Co.'s Duracell brand depicting real-life uses of batteries. One spot showing firefighters caused a fair amount of discussion about whether viewers would feel it was exploiting the heroes of Sept. 11, she said.

"People don't want their heartstrings pulled overtly. Advertisers need to be careful how they're using patriotism," she said.

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